by Sarah Buchanan
The vending machine stops. I stare at the chrome cylinder, frozen in space. I think about giving up. The biology vending machine never did this to me. My reflection stares back at me through the glass, waiting. I have to get the story out of the cylinder or else I can’t show up to class, and that would be my sixth absence this semester. I’d fail and have to take the class over again. The computerized counselor had suggested I take the creative writing class for an easy A so I could get the credits and just graduate already.
Grasping both sides of the vending machine, I shake it, trying to ease the cylinder out of the tube. It doesn’t move.
“Need some help?”
I turn to see a guy about my age standing in the doorway of the studio. “Umm, it’s jammed.”
“Happens all the time.” He approaches, and I step back, wary of someone who comes here often.
This is only the third time I’ve been here, and the last—like I said the two times before today.
The guy smacks the display case, and the cylinder drops an inch. He shoves his shoulder against the glass and pushes the vending machine back. The cylinder drops another inch. He smacks the machine again, and the cylinder ejects out of the tube and onto the floor.
I pick it up and start to leave. “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
“I think I’ve seen you here before,” he says. “My name’s–”
“No that wasn’t me.” I’m already outside, the studio door shutting behind me.
By the time I make it to the train, there’s only standing room. My mom jokes that when she was young, people would give you their seats, especially if you were a woman. I eye all the people crammed into the small spaces. There’s more room in the aisle where I’m standing than in the actual seats. Knees are lodged into the seats in front of them. Whenever someone crosses their legs, the person in front of them gets pushed forward.
I check my watch. After swiping it to get on the train, it alerted me that my funds are low. There’s only $20 in my bank account—not even enough for lunch. My watch starts vibrating. I press the button on the side of my glasses, and the ear bud lowers into my ear.
“Hey, Greenlee, class today or no?” Abi asks.
“I’m on the Bullet. I’ll be on campus in ten. Can you stall for me?”
“Please? This is the last time. I promise.”
She sighs but still doesn’t say anything.
“Yeah, fine,” she says and hangs up.
I remove the paper from the cylinder and read the story until the train stops in San Francisco. I follow the crowd up the stairs and into the humid air and pile onto the bus. I swipe my watch at the door, paying the $15 fare. Another bad air quality warning was issued for the week. Those who are brave enough to walk outside wear helmets.
Since we’re on the bus to the university, I’m surrounded by other students. Everyone’s glasses project screens onto the seats in front of them. One girl uses her stylus to annotate Twilight, while the boy sitting next to her finishes a physics problem. The kid next to me closes his eyes and leans back into his seat. His glasses power down so he can sleep.
I look out the window, trying to see the steel buildings passing us. There’s too much smog and few cars on the road. No one could afford gas once it reached $8 per gallon.
My stomach grumbles and starts to cramp with pain from not having eaten yet. My watch vibrates again, and the screen tells me that my blood sugar level is getting low. I reread the story.
When I open the door to the classroom, every head turns to me. The professor, standing in front, finishes answering a question.
“Okay, I get it,” Abi says, cutting off the professor.
I walk to the third row and sit next to her. I mouth a thank you and try to catch my breath after running all the way from the bus stop. I didn’t have time to wait for a campus scooter.
“Greenlee, it’s your turn for workshop,” the professor says.
I tap the Bluetooth button on my glasses and straighten the story on the desk in front of me. Everyone grabs their styluses, and my story projects from my view through their glasses and onto the desktop in front of them.
The story’s dated; it’s about a family of illegal immigrants. The professor nods as I read. He doesn’t suspect that I bought my story. He’s even excited about it, that I’d chosen such interesting material. He says it’s subversive.
“Hey want to buy me lunch?” I ask Abi as we leave class.
She unzips her backpack and takes out two helmets. Handing me one, she says, “Do I have a choice?”
I take off my glasses and pull the helmet over my face. “Thanks.”
She always carries one for me. They’re mandatory if you’re outside for more than ten minutes at a time. Abi appears through the eye slits. Her blue helmet matches her tank top. We walk toward the cafeteria.
“How much did that story cost?” She asks.
We step off the concrete walkway and into the dirt to let a line of scooters pass us. The school allows students to rent them for free on bad air days. Each one comes with its own veiled enclosure that covers your head. You either wear the glorified bee helmet on the scooter or wear a ski helmet while walking in the dirt.
I remember the first bad air week a few years ago. Not many people went to school. Some people thought they’d die, but I used whatever excuse I could to get a day off of work and school. The teachers still sent us prerecorded lectures and notes, but I didn’t have to leave my room for an entire week or see my boss, so it wasn’t too bad.
When people realized they wouldn’t die, at least not right away, they took some chances—small ones at first. Every risk starts small. They walked outside to their cars and back inside to their apartments or offices. People grew braver. They walked the entire distance from their offices to a restaurant down the street. The braver people got, the more hours I had to work. I always joke with Abi that the world would end and I’d still have to open at Starbucks the next morning.
The government gave us helmets, though, because we’ll all die from it one day, and they didn’t want to be held responsible. People walked around outside with their faces covered, almost headless, unrecognizable things navigating through the contamination.
Abi and I move back to the sidewalk after the line of scootering beekeepers passes us.
“What else was I supposed to do?” I ask. “I didn’t have time, and it’s not like I can write anyways.”
“You’ve never tried,” Abi says.
We’re stopped again by another long procession of scooters.
Abi sighs. “People need to back up.” She waits until the sounds of the motors are behind us. “How’d you learn about the vending machine place by the way?”
“Guy in my stats class.”
“How nice of him.”
Sweat starts forming under my armpits. “He thought so too. Said that people like me needed those kinds of things, like a charity for the disadvantaged. God, it’s hot out already.”
Although I can barely see her eyes, I know Abi’s looking at me. “Women.”
“Ah. Yes.” She shakes her head. “Fucking scorching out.” She pulls her tank top of her stomach, trying to fan herself.
We’re getting closer to the cafeteria, the line outside already visible.
“Damn.” Abi notices the long trail of helmeted faces.
No single person in the line is identifiable, so we can’t cut. We’ll have to wait outside in the heat and smog.
“What are you going to do for your next story?” Abi asks.
“Not sure yet.”
“I heard they regulate those things. You can only scan so many times.”
“Well I’ve been there twice, the third time today, I guess, and the machine accepted payment just fine.” I reflexively look at my watch.
“Was the other stuff you got there any good?” she asks.
We follow the winding row of bodies to the very end. The only noise are the scooters motoring past. It’s almost too hot and humid to talk.
“I bought two biology assignments, and I got A’s on them. It’s quality stuff,” I say.
We get in line behind the other helmets.
“Takes less than an hour, too. We should go down for the day, see a football game or something. I’ve never really seen LA,” I add.
“I know. I’ve taken the Bullet. LA’s okay. Have you done that project for your chem class yet?” Abi asks.
A scooter rolls past us. I press against the side of the concrete building, trying to give it space. There are too many people here and not enough room.
“I don’t know where to start,” I say.
Abi crosses her arms. “At the beginning.”
I roll my eyes. Momentarily, I feel regret, and then, relief. Sometimes the helmets aren’t so bad. I squint and try to see if Abi’s looking at me.
She shifts her weight several times from one foot to the other. She checks her watch. “We haven’t even moved in the last five minutes.”
I feel light-headed from the heat and not eating. I flatten myself against the wall, hoping to get out of the sunlight.
“If this doesn’t get better in a minute, I’m dipping out.” She stands on her tiptoes, trying to see ahead.
I clutch my stomach and wonder how much longer before the cramping turns into intolerable pain.
“Sorry, Greenlee, but this isn’t worth it.” Abi backs away from me and the other waiting bodies.
“Please, I’m starved. I’ll pay you back once I get last month’s paycheck. Promise.”
She’s already out of my reach.
“Nah, I didn’t sign up for this.” She turns to me and backs further and further away, toward the direction we just came. “Good luck with the chemistry project. Try doing your own work.”
“Thanks,” I say.
She doesn’t hear me.
I watch her disappear into the smog. I look around at the helmets and realize I don’t know who any of these people are. They surround me.
I think about ten years ago, before Donald Trump was elected president, and try to remember what it was like to do my own homework.
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